PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The flighty, mercurial kid whose nerves always disintegrated under duress was a model of composure Saturday.
Nicole Bobek didn't flinch under the pressure of skating next to last in the final portion of the U.S. women's figure skating championships. She didn't unravel when she touched her hand to the ice on the landing of a triple toe loop, as she might have in the past. She was, as her music demanded, playful, graceful, regal. Always in command.
Not until the competition ended and someone told her she had won did Bobek lose control.
"I got hysterical. I couldn't believe it," she said. "I kept saying, 'No. No. They made a mistake.' "
It was no mistake. Bobek, a 17-year-old Chicagoan who exhausted the patience of nearly a dozen coaches before she found Richard Callaghan last autumn, skated a stirring four-minute free skate routine Saturday at the Providence Civic Center to win her first U.S. title.
Second behind Tonia Kwiatkowski and ahead of Michelle Kwan after the short program, Bobek won with a performance in which she seemed to live the music from "Dr. Zhivago," not merely skate to it by rote. She blended solid jumps with her trademark graceful spiral and picturesque layback spins, earning one 5.9 (out of 6.0) for technical merit and four 5.9s for presentation.
Kwan, the 14-year-old sensation from Torrance, fell on one jump and two-footed the landing of another but moved up to second place, earning a spot on the U.S. team at the world championships next month in Birmingham, England. Kwiatkowski, who turns 24 today, also fell and completed only three triple jumps, one fewer than Bobek and two fewer than Kwan. That dropped her to third.
Bobek was third at last year's nationals and hadn't won a competition since the Vienna Cup in 1991. But her decision to train with Callaghan in West Bloomfield Hills, Mich., changed her outlook and Saturday's outcome.
"I was very confident, very relaxed," she said. "I just knew all that hard work would pay off. . . . I had to show everyone that I have been training, that I was able to succeed even as all the rumors go around about switching (coaches)."
It was a memorable day for Callaghan too. In the afternoon, he exulted as another of his pupils, Todd Eldredge, rallied to win the men's championship. Callaghan is the first coach to have students win women's and men's titles in the same year since 1950, when Gustave Lussi coached Yvonne Sherman and Dick Button to championships.
"Not a bad feeling," Callaghan said. "I am surprised, both with Todd and Nicole, because the thought was for them to have a good competition and build to a good year, to be trained and if they did their work, it would pay off."
Callaghan was well aware of Bobek's reputation after she left coaches Mary and Evy Scotvold after a brief stay and asked him to take her on. He worked on her self-confidence as much as on her stamina.
"I had the physical (ability). There was no doubt in my mind I could do it. All I needed was the concentration, telling myself to be relaxed and calm," she said. "When I messed up, I just basically told myself that it could have been a lot worse. At least I didn't fall on my face or my butt."
Kwan fell on a triple lutz. But she said she was pleased with the performance that gave her a second successive runner-up finish.
"I didn't really care about my overall standing. I just wanted to skate really well," she said.
Said her coach, Frank Carroll: "There may be a little disappointment, but if she's serious about staying in the sport for 10 years, she'd better learn to deal with it. We knew it was going to be a tough battle."
Kwan's sister, Karen, was seventh in the free skate. . . . Jenni Meno and Todd Sand finished sixth among pairs at last year's world championships, not fifth as stated in Saturday's editions.